Letting Go, and Learning Fast: How Adapting Skills Will Fuel Our Success in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Future-of-work strategist, speaker, and author Heather McGowan joins the program to discuss the mindset shift that needs to happen in order to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. Heather reveals how helping to save her brother’s life informed her thinking about leadership and the future of work, and how leaders will need to change and adapt. Discover the skill sets that will be most in demand in the future, and how organizations can help or hinder learning.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How Heather’s adopted brother’s health crisis informed her ideas on leadership (18:00)
  • The need for safety in the workplace (22:00)
  • The skills that will be most in-demand in the future (39:00)
  • The necessity of “unlearning” (44:00)
  • A mindset shift for future workers (46:00)
  • The business case for diversity and inclusion (48:00)
  • The impact of the changing economy on the future of work (51:00)
  • How technology can help us focus on purpose and meaning (54:00)
  • Adaptation as a crucial resiliency skill (57:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Heather, welcome to The Will To Change.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Thank you, Jennifer. Thanks for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I’m glad you’re joining. You and I know each other through Sparks & Honey, which is a future trends Institute and agency. I know you and I just love being part of that community. You focus on the future of work, and the future in general, which we’re going to talk about today. I was really captured in watching your thought leadership.

There’s so many great videos of you presenting with some really amazing slides by the way. So I want to direct our listeners to go and check out your talks online because you’ve got to kind of see it illustrated. I think it really brings it home. But anyway, you and I share a passion for thinking about what is going to need to change in the future for all of us to thrive in that VUCA world. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. You have some real concrete things for us to think about as we shape our … how we spend our time, and how we, in a way, retool ourselves as we go no matter what age we are, but also, sort of, the generational implications in the workplace where now gen Y millennial are the dominant, or most numerous generation in the workplace and bringing all that comes along with that to bear, and in a way sort of forcing change in institutions that are sort of old and crusty. I know all about that because we’re trying to create the same kind of change when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

I think coming up against a lot of the quizzical looks and the resistance that I’m sure sometimes you pick up on in audiences too, the fear of change, the likelihood of slipping into inertia, staying in inertia, and not really understanding that things are changing so rapidly around us, and if we sort of stay in that place of denial that maybe we’ll get by without needing to really do the hard work of change organizationally and individually. So we’re going to dive into a lot of that. I’m really excited to have you on The Will To Change.

I know you have an interesting diversity story as well because I know some things about it. I’d love for you to acquaint our audience with what that means to you if I … when I ask you, what is your diversity story Heather, where would you take us in terms of background, your family, and how all of that shaped you and the person you are today and the work that you do in the world today.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Sure. Thank you. First of all, thank you very much for having me. I don’t tend to think of myself as having a diversity story, but I think I really do. So I was raised in a small town in Massachusetts. I have a biological sister, Kelly, I have a sister adopted from Korea, Melissa, and I have a brother adopted from Korea, Jonathan. Jonathan and Missy were … Melissa or Missy, were adopted at different times and they’re not biologically related. So my brother was adopted when he was six and I was seven. So I was suddenly, I had this kid in my home who spoke … didn’t speak English and he was my brother, and he was almost my age. It was kind of a wild way to grow up in a predominantly white town where I didn’t even know what racism was because even though I was white, nobody would say a racist joke to me because it was a small town and the majority of the racial diversity in any … was in my home.

Another thing happened when I was in a university, I did my undergraduate at Rhode Island School of Design. In my freshman year, my brother Jonathan was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia that was curable only with a bone marrow transplant. It threw my family, with no medical background, into chaos because bone marrow compatibility is based on who you’re related to, not just blood type or anything like that, and the odds of matching someone randomly is something like one in 40,000. There was a registry of donors at the time, but there were about a handful of Asians and it may be 1,000.

So we decided to take this on as a family and sort of save … try to save my brother’s life. I was a student in college, so I encouraged other university students who were of Asian descent, particularly Korean descent, to try to get tested, to save the life of someone that they never met. My father worked with Korean churches and said, “I’m a parent, this could be your kid.” Over the course of the year, 7,000 people rolled up their sleeves and tried … took a blood test to try to save the life of someone they never met. Before the internet, just person to person, which has left me with a real optimism about what determined set of humans could do and what humans will do for a stranger and the goodness in most people.

While we were doing that to try to save my brother’s life through an anonymous donor, my parents had been active in adoption and hosted people in their home who were doctors from Korea trying to study neonatal care at Boston, or adoption advocates on their way to DC would stop and stay with us in the Boston area. Through that, we had a lot of goodwill with the adoption community. So friends of ours in the adoption community went around Korea, door to door, and they found my brother’s biological mother. She came over and she was his donor in 1992, and he’s 47 years old today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. What a story.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: So that kind of informed my worldview from an early age. It gave me a sense that there’s no “no”. I mean the hospitals in Boston said they couldn’t treat my brother anymore. My parents flew around the country with binders full of information on my brother, and found a hospital in Kentucky that was doing an experiment with not perfectly matched, but related donors. So it was just a wild couple of years that brought my family really close, it gave me a sense of confidence. I was doing media interviews at the age of 18. I was directing donor drives all across the country from a phone booth down the hallway from my dorm room. So it gave me a sense of anything’s possible, It gave me a sense of as I said, the goodness in people. So that’s part of my diversity story. Then as you and I have discussed, I’m gay and I’m married. My wife, Patricia is the meaning of my life.

So that’s my diversity story. I think it was more informed by the experiences around my brother’s illness and that experience probably more than anything, but my sister went on, my biological sister went on to the Peace Corps in Honduras where she met her husband. They’re now divorced. So in my family, the next generation is two Korean females, two half Hispanic females, and a Korean male. So my family is very diverse. That’s been the norm for me.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’re the only one that identifies as LGBTQ community member?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: As far as I know. Right now I don’t know about –

JENNIFER BROWN: As far as we know.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: I don’t know about the next generation, but yeah, as for as I know.

JENNIFER BROWN: As far as we know. So now I understand why you’re just … you’re so comfortable on stage. I can just tell that those leadership skills were forged somehow some way, and that confidence you have. I mean, literally when you and I talked about our shared identity, our experiences were pretty different. You said, “Oh, I’ve never been closeted. I’ve been myself.” I think that has to do with so much of the parent … the tone that our parents set, and how much they actually are doing their own work, and their own stance about all of this, and where we grew up in the country, and all that stuff, but I’m just really glad to see you out there rocking it and using your voice in such a powerful way. I honestly don’t see a lot of women speaking on what you speak on. It seems to be a very male dominated field that you’re in.

So would you just tell us what field do you consider yourself in? Because you’re such a Renaissance thinker, but … What field are you in and would you agree with that that your voice is an unusual one just purely from a gender and identity perspective, but … Map your world for us so that we understand.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah, I guess so. I was speaking to a Speakers Agency sphere or something in the last year and they said, “Oh, it’s really good you’re female.” I was like, “Yeah, well I like my gender. Why is it good?” They’re like … because I checked some box for them that they needed … whomever it was needed another future work speaker and they need … They had nothing but white males, and they told me that it’s a struggle. I’ve had clients pick me before, not because they knew anything about me, they were just pleasantly surprised because I think they just picked me based upon my gender. I guess I’m reaping some of the benefits of being a bit of a unicorn, but there’s some good … there’s some great women speakers out there. Whenever I notice one I try to keep them in mind because whenever a client says to me, “Oh, I’ve got another event, or I need more people,” or I’m not available one day, I certainly try to pass on the names of other good folks out there.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I try to do that as well because we’ve got to help each other up. You and I know once you speak someplace, usually you don’t speak there again. So we have a real opportunity to keep the train going.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Right. For sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So your focus area is truly the future. I know you give a variety of lengths of talks. I’ve seen you boil this down into like five minutes and then I’ve also listened to longer ones. So given our time is short here, what would you share with us about the core of your thought leadership on, for example, the ages that we are going through as a society and the role of tech in that, the shifts that we’re experiencing, and what you believe are going to be the attributes of not just successful leaders in the future, but today and the successful habits and lenses that we all need to adopt in order to succeed in this rapidly changing, unpredictable world.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: I think we’re kind of going through a phase, and we’re in a bit of liminal space because we haven’t digitized the entire economy, but where we have, I think we’re starting to see the world as I imagine. Which is that lunging just to technology skills is not going to get us there. So learning how to code is a wonderful thing because you understand what’s computable and what can be coded, but relying simply on that skill for a living, isn’t going to work. Codifying and transferring any skillset into somebody to make them robot proof, isn’t going to work. That’s the past we’re coming out of. So we learned once in order to work in the past, and my motto is, we now have to work in order to learn continuously. So work and learning are a combined act. Because if you look at what technology is going to be able to do is strip away any of the tasks or many of the tasks that are routine and predictable.

There’s an alarming amount of our current work tasks. When you strip those away, what’s left is uniquely human stuff and learning. When you look at that, that is an opportunity for more people to express themselves and to bring their full selves to work. From a leadership perspective, we’re coming out of sort of an era of simply humans as units of productivity and leadership as just driving productivity into leadership to inspire human potential. That kind of leadership is much more about, can you establish trust, psychological safety? Can you show real vulnerability so that the people on your team are vulnerable as well? I know Brene Brown talks about that a lot. But the reasoning I think for it, and she talks about it across a number of dimensions, but in my view, if we’re going into a world where you strip out anything mentally routine and predictable, and what’s left is the uniquely human stuff, the problem framing, the last mile, and the making meaning.

In order to do that, you need to establish an environment where you’ve got a diversity of inputs and you’ve got safety. So if you’re a leader and you’re trying to hide your weaknesses, you’re not establishing trust and you’re not creating safety. You are signaling to everybody on your team to hide their weaknesses. Those weaknesses are going to come out, those knowledge and skills gaps are going to come out. They’re going to come out too late when it’s much more expensive. So it’s sort of contrary to how we think about ourselves like leaders have to have all the answers. No, we just have to be able to say, “I don’t know, I was wrong, I failed and this is what I learned from it.” That’s a really a big shift.

JENNIFER BROWN: Huge shift. I couldn’t agree more. We talk about this all the time that even admitting that you know what you don’t know, or maybe even you don’t know what you don’t know, is particularly resonant with diversity and inclusion, knowledge, language, the sensitivity to unconscious bias. It’s so difficult for, I think, senior leaders who’ve been expected to show up as being unassailable, as being uber confident, as now having all the answers, to literally admit that in the organizational context, they know the least, and that employees and other parts of the organization know the most when it comes to particularly to the example of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve been talking a lot about reverse mentoring and the wisdom of thinking about revisiting really the hierarchy of learning, and thinking about how can we connect the knowledge to the learner, and actually who is the most knowledgeable and who is the learner, who’s the mentor and who’s the mentee, and have we … Do we need to flip that? I know the workplace is getting more democratic and it sounds like you would very much support that, right? Because hierarchy is usually bad for innovation, and bad for input, et cetera.

So do you think that organizations do need to kind of be thinking in a much more flat way in order to generate this learning that needs to happen intergenerationally, and that we’re still kind of trapped in this hierarchical thinking?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah. I think in visuals. So I’m going to describe one of the visuals I use in my talk. One of them, it’s a point at the top with a bunch of points coming down from it with all lines. So it looks like a general in front of an army. That’s kind of how we used to organize things, we still do in many cases, and how we think about information flowing because usually the person at the top of the ladder could make decisions in certainty because they have, or had all the knowledge and skill of everyone below them, because they either sat in all those chairs to work their way up, they might’ve skipped over a couple of chairs, but when there’s not a lot of change, they can make decisions in certainty. So that’s the complicated world where problems can break down into sub-components.

Now I think we’re in the complex world where things are interlocking and interdependent, where knowledge isn’t just flowing in one direction, it’s flowing in every direction. It’s flowing and pooling in different places. So suddenly as a leader, you have issues like cybersecurity, and data analytics, and identity management and a whole host of things that you … they weren’t in your purview or on your radar screen when you got your education and when you started on your career. So suddenly you have to defer to people who are junior to you in that hierarchical mindset, in order to make some decisions, and that’s a real big shift.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is an enormous shift. That takes a lot of humility. That’s one of those competencies that I wish we saw more of.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: In confidence. Because in order to be humble and in order to say you don’t know, in order to be vulnerable, you have to be confident. It’s the insecurity that builds the armor on you, leaves you trying to hide things.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. You can be humble and confident at the same time. What it sounds like is, to me, talking about openly what you don’t know, and inviting a collaborative process and saying … even when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it means, extending yourself to receive feedback, which is really … Gosh, that must feel so risky to people to admit that they may get something wrong and that something is changing so quickly that even those of us who kind of study this on a day to day basis, are still making errors in language.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah, right. I used to answer every question I got after I spoke when there was a Q&A period. Even when somebody asks me a question and I really didn’t know the answer to, I would sort of pivot to another answer because you’re supposed to fill the space. But in the last couple of years I’ve decided I need to model the I don’t know, mantra I’ve been saying. Sometimes people ask me a question and I say, “I’m really sorry, I don’t know, but I’m going to think about it. If you give me your email address, I will send you some thoughts after I’ve looked into it a little more. But at this point in time, I don’t actually have an answer that’s worth wasting your time with.”

JENNIFER BROWN: That is a really interesting idea. I think I do that too, I do. I usually kind of steer it to something I do know, honestly, however I love –

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yes, there’s something –

JENNIFER BROWN: Good for you. That’s very courageous of you because you know you’re on that stage and allegedly getting the big bucks – “ha, ha, ha” – because you do have all the answers and you’re being paid to have them. So I wonder whether … Do you ever get feedback from your client to say, “Gosh, I really wish you could have answered that question or at least tried, or I don’t know.” Do you get-

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah. Once I got a, “You know you really didn’t answer that question.” Because I was willing to say I didn’t … I was unwilling at the time to say I didn’t know. So I may have sort of spun to an … I pivoted to an answer I did know. In the feedback they called me on it. It wasn’t a major thing, but that’s what … so that’s actually what started me to say, “You know what, I’m not going to do that anymore.” So to prep for an event, I have usually an hour prep call, or a series of emails. I know what’s most important to the organization that I’m speaking to, do my homework. I even talk specific to the audience. So I usually hit the points they want me to hit, but if I get a question out of left field that was … Sometimes people ask questions it’s even beyond the scope of what we were talking about. Some of the audience might just have an agenda. That has happened a couple times.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s true too.


JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s almost like you can never satisfy some folks like that they just have this one problem and they almost don’t want to solve the problem, they just want to be heard. Maybe that’s why the solving the problem is to be heard, right?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah. I’ve had that before. I’ve just sort of like the person’s got one and I spoke for five minutes and I was like, “I don’t even think there was a question in there.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, absolutely. You know people get vulnerable and they might just have this moment of wanting to reveal and work something through in front of a thousand people, and you’re standing there on stage wondering what you should do with it. But I love your point about role modeling, it’s a good one. I often say, “I hope that answered your question? I’m not sure I answered it, but I would be happy to speak with you after because it’s a longer … it could be a longer conversation.” So I invite that, and then you create another problem, which is that you have a lot of follow-up conversations, and calls, and whatever.

I think you know this is complex stuff that you and I focus on, and there’s a lot of actually ways to answer, and there’s no one right answer for the questions that we get. So educate us about, you say we’re entering the fourth industrial age. Can you talk about the ages of human history, what we’re entering now, so that we can locate ourselves. Really, I think interestingly, notice that perhaps a lot of our systems and processes and maybe even our own personal thinking is still grounded in an older age versus kind of where … how we need to be adapting to the new age, which we probably don’t see because we’re like fish in water, right?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Right, right. So the first industrial revolution was the steam engine. The second was electricity in the beginning of division of manufacturing, division of labor. The third was computerization and the beginning of automating manufacturing or physical labor, and the fourth is, according to the world economic forum – this is their framing – the merging of physical, biological and cyber systems. So that means the information infrastructure we’ve been building out in the third industrial revolution, in terms of sort of laying the pipes, and weaving the fibers so that we’re all connected, then suddenly things go into the cloud, sensors cost less, everything around us has intelligence in it, Mickey McManus from Autodesk refers to it as the thing … the moment when things wake up, which I think is a real visceral way of thinking about it. When suddenly your refrigerator can talk to Amazon, and your … the insoles in your shoes can talk to your doctor, and so there’s this communication that takes place. I think it’s actually kind of a profound moment of visibility and invisibility because suddenly we can see things we couldn’t see before.

We can predict traffic patterns, we can see the water flow in our house. Data analytics kind of gives us a view into things we could never see or understand before, and then it makes other things really invisible. When you walk into your house and your watch tells the Nest Thermostat to turn it to a certain temperature, and your car starts when you walk out the door, or whatever it may be. When things start happening for us, and we sort of have these experiences that are sort of designed without us. So I think it’s a combination of visibility and invisibility that I think is going to start becoming more evident to people. But the shift for humans from the third to the fourth, is a shift from kind of defining yourself by one set career to navigating through many careers and many career identities.

I think there’s a really big piece to explore around identity because we ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up, we ask the university students to pick a major before they step foot on campus, and then we ask each other, what do you do? So we define ourselves by this occupational identity. I was inspired to first start speaking about it when my niece Izzy was four and she called me up and she said, “Auntie Heather, I’ve career day at school tomorrow.” And I thought, “Seriously, you’re four.” She said, “I want to be a unicorn.” She loves the unicorns.” She said, “But my teacher told me that wasn’t realistic, so I’m going to be a cop because I like navy blue.”

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s the cutest story.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: We’re asking these young kids to pick a current self for their future self at a time when things have never moved more quickly with the slowest rate of change for the rest of our lives is right now. So instead of… we’re telling them pick future-self based on things you’re good at or bad at in school, which high school and junior high is a really thin slice of the world. So having them pick their future-self based upon marks on an exam is just absurd. We’re preparing people to compete with robots and algorithms with that kind of thinking. Instead, I think we need to help people form a resilient and adaptive identity that’s rooted in purpose, because I think if we’re going to learn and adapt for life, which we are going to have to. We have to connect to the internal motivational driver that will fuel us to do that, and I think that’s purpose.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I couldn’t agree more. Didn’t you say something like how many different careers and jobs will be had by young people? What was that statistic you shared with me?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah, the Foundation for Young Australians, which does a lot of great research. They use world economic forum data and OECD data. They tell me it’s applicable to the … to most of the developed world. A young person today will have 16 or 17 different jobs across five different industries. So if we’re preparing people myopically to focus on the first one, which could last 18 months to 36 months, we’re not preparing them for the world they’re going to enter. I mean, we’re actually making it much more difficult for them. A study out of the UK found that job loss can take twice as long to recover from than the loss of primary relationship, and a lot of people never bounce back.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s stunning. That is really stunning.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: We’re taking away who they think they are because we’ve had them define themselves by application of skills and knowledge at a moment in time.

JENNIFER BROWN: Do you think there’s truth in the assumption that young people are the most resilient and adaptive, or … I’m sure you have some thoughts about generation X and boomers as well and that sort of adaptivity and that… I love those studies that talk about what you gain in terms of cognitive abilities as you get older. I love those selfishly, because it’s really neat to read something for a change that’s not talking about what’s degenerating as you get older, but actually what’s getting stronger and more connected. So what are your thoughts about that? The second part of that is, how are you maintaining your adaptivity as somebody that needs to stay on the cutting edge as you get a little older. I think you’re around my age, but like how are you exercising those muscles and what are you applying yourself to that’s really stretching you as a leader?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Okay. So I’m starting with the younger generation. I think some of them are really adaptive. I mean, they have grown up sort of in digital flows and adapting to new technology and sort of learning and unlearning in that sense, but we’re still defining them, at least in our systems of education, we’re telling them good grades will equal a good job. So we’re teaching them to have the right answers rather than ask interesting questions. We’re teaching them to lunge at certain skill sets or majors or disciplines because that’s supposedly going to ensure their future rather than paying attention to what they’re intrinsically interested in because that’s what’s going to fuel their lifelong learning journey.

So I think that we’re doing them a disservice, I think they’ve got a lot of potential. In terms of cognitive peaks, which you were talking about, I’ve written a couple of … I mentioned this in a couple of articles, but so we have fixed and fluid intelligence. So fluid intelligence, they believe for the most part peaks at 20. It’s not a slight, it’s not an absolute drop-off from there, but it declines over time. So your ability to rapidly respond to changes in the moment and in the second, peak somewhere around 20. Then crystallized intelligence, which is your ability to sort of store knowledge and sort of have an encyclopedic mindset, peaks at 50, 60, 70 depending on the person. Those are sort of the two goalposts we’ve had. But recent research has come out that has found a whole spectrum of other cognitive peaks, many of which would peak after the age of 40. So reading emotions, deeply learning things, vocabulary, ability to concentrate, all of those things peak after the age of 40.

If you look at the world economic forums, top 10 future work skills, according to my analysis when I checked it with someone who’s an expert in cognitive peaks, 60% of them don’t peak till after the age of 40. So I think the outlook for us is in that regard is good.

A lot of those skills are not technical skills, they’re uniquely human skills. It’s collaboration, and people management, and negotiation, and those sorts of things will take time as a human on the planet interacting with other humans to develop that tacit knowledge. So that’s I think my answer to the first part of question.

The second part was what am I doing? I have a network of about, I think it’s 18 or 19, maybe it’s 20,000 people on LinkedIn, who follow me and they don’t passively follow me, they actively engage in conversation. So If I read something I think is interesting, I put it out there and say, “Please engage, what do you guys think,” and there’s a robust debate.

There was an article in The New York Times the other day about underemployment and unemployment. This folks who were not showing up in our sort of unemployment data, which is really kind of bullshit anyway, all we’re doing is tracking people who are collecting unemployment benefits, which is a short window. Once you fall out of that, you’re no longer considered part of the unemployment statistics. So I post this article about a woman telling her story about how she’s been looking for a year, 18 months for a job, and how she doesn’t hear back from anybody, it’s horrible, it’s depressing.

There’s a real bias in the workforce to not consider a candidate who’s not in another job. I remember I was working … I think I was in the university. I was in the university at the time, and we were hiring for a position, and the person who was sort of managing the hiring process didn’t want to look at that person because she’s just looking for a job. I said, “Well, isn’t that ironic?” Because we’re just hiring.” I said, “Is she less somehow because she’s not currently in a position?” You have no idea why she’s not in a position. That is such an arbitrary piece of information. This is my second … my third podcast interview this week, and I’ve made it a point to mention on all of them to any of the HR people that are listening, would you please stop that bias. It’s absolutely absurd, and it’s a profound loss to human potential, because when I posted that article, so far, there’ve been 60,000 engagements, 62,000 engagements, 800 comments.

There’s a lot of people out there who said, “I thought it was just me.” Then there’s a woman I used to work with who actually told her story of being unemployed and what she did, and then somebody asked me what my story was around unemployment or underemployment. I told my story in there, and we all have a story in that regard, we all pretend we don’t, but we all have a story.

If you haven’t been through job loss or job change, voluntary or involuntary, you’re really missing out because there’s a lot of great learning in that, because if you’ve never left a job, and either left a job prematurely, decided to leave a job and then went looking for another job and see … experience that stigma of looking for a job when you didn’t have one, or left a job when it was involuntary, whether it was a layoff or firing, somebody you didn’t get along with, change in skillset, whatever it could be, then you’ve never had to go through the humbling experience of trying to put your value out there, trying to craft your story, and try to answer that, where do you work question, when you’re at a cocktail party. I think it’s something that almost everybody needs to go through in order to have the appropriate empathy in the workforce.

JENNIFER BROWN: So true. If anybody had told you, “Hey, guess what, you’re going to be an expert and you’re going to keynote all over the world.” I mean, would you have been shocked? I find myself a little curious about those years for you, when you were maybe feeling you had an abundance of purpose but maybe not the opportunities to line up with that, and now look what you get to do for a living, which is such a gift. But how long would you say you’ve been in that sweet spot? Would you say you’re in the sweet spot? I mean, does it feel like that on a day to day basis that things are sort of aligned for you and you’re in that flow professionally?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Oh, for sure. I feel like I won the lottery. I mean, I don’t understand why I get to live this life. I just don’t know what I did to have these opportunities and get to live a life of constant, rapid, steep learning. I work with really wonderful people, I have fantastic speakers, bureaus and speakers, agents that represent me, clients that are amazing, a lot of repeat clients who will bring me back to different divisions within an organization, or clients who will have me speak on their behalf because I … what I believe is what they believe and they want to get that out there in the world. I don’t know what I did or what I owe somebody, but I am very, very grateful.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, your message is giving back into us because I think you’re … it’s a bit of a … like here’s the future. It’s a bit of a warning, but it’s also an encouragement. I think to say we can all participate in this, but we’ve got to know what’s … and name what’s going on around us and really acknowledge the pace of change, and then think about our own potential and perhaps our purpose.

I find a lot of people whom I mentor are still unraveling and getting closer to that purpose and are realizing maybe late in life that they aren’t working in that sweet spot, and they wouldn’t even … they don’t even know what that really means for them. It’s exciting that this can happen at any point, but I think your point is don’t wait to have it happen to you. Prepare now and build a muscle so that when you have your moment you’re able to jump, or take advantage, or make that change and be ready for it. Which I think requires actually unlearning as much as learning agility, which you talk a lot about. So what would you say about unlearning? What do we need to unlearn, do you think? I mean, it probably depends on the person and the field and whatever, but what do you mean by that?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah, I think we need to unlearn the concept that we’re done, like we’re fixed products as humans. Because I got to interview Kate O’Keeffe, from Cisco’s CHILL lab as a … for my book. She has this expression of, “Think about yourself as like a prototype.” You are a prototype in testing that is part of what you’re doing in the world and you’ve sort of got to edit experiences and say, “Okay, I really liked this about that experience, but I didn’t like this about the experience.” Sort of pay attention to the things that give you energy. I always like to give people tips. One way to think about it is to take a week and at the end of every day, beginning of every day, whichever works for you, write down all the things you did that day and then circle the things that gave you energy, that you woke up in the morning or went to bed at night depending on where you’re oriented, excited about that particular project or task or thing that you worked on. Then sort of kind of draw an asterisk next to the things that you put off and you hated.

That sort of starts to map where purpose lies for you, and what kinds of projects give you energy, where you might be intrinsically motivated, where you’re more apt to learn, where you’re more apt to be more engaged. I don’t think we’re taught to pay attention to that. I think we’re told to … this is what you’re good at, this is what you’re not good at, the world values these things, so let’s try to line up as much of the stuff you might be good at, to the way in which the world values them. But I think it’s more about finding your purpose, getting comfortable learning and adapting, and then understanding how the things you’re interested in can create value in the world, and how you connect to that value creation process.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautifully said. That’s kind of how I live my life. It feels like the older you get, the better you get at this. Hopefully, if you have the comfort I think and the freedom to explore this, which of course when we think about Maslow hierarchy of needs. If you’re hungry and you’re not safe, how can you really explore how to achieve your best and highest purpose. You talked about visible and invisible earlier, and I think you meant invisible tech sort of doing things for us, but I heard it and I thought who becomes invisible in this march towards progress. Does the question of inclusion come up, and who we’re leaving … whom we are leaving behind and how we future-proof ourselves. I hear it also referred to as robot-proofing. Although you said we’re already part cyborg without … When every time you don’t know somebody’s phone number, and you look it up on your phone and you’re already like digitally enhanced.

I’m sure you get questions about this. Like who’s going to be able to ride this wave and who is not. Are we thinking about that in the right way, and what can we all do to ensure this future is inclusive?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of different ways I’d answer that. Sort of on the straight up diversity and inclusion sort of question. When I’m talking to corporations, I say this has got to stop being a “nice to have” HR policy, and it has to become a central business strategy, because the greater diversity you have on your team, the greater financial performance you have, the greater diversity you have on your team, the superior products and services you build. Because suddenly inside your company looks like outside your company, suddenly inside your company looks like your customers. You’ve suddenly got people who check your blind spot. So you make better products services, you make better value.

So that’s from the kind of corporate standpoint of shifted out of HR and it’s got to be central to business strategy. Separate question around who we’re leaving behind, I think we’ve already left a lot of people behind, and we’ve got a lot of work to do on that front. I think that the … Globally, in the developed world, the sort of rise of authoritarianism and sort of these strong men out there, whether it be Brexit or Trump or … Something’s happening in Italy, I was reading about the other day, different parts of the world, we’ve got these people and these kind of strong leaders coming in. I don’t mean strong in a positive way, I mean, that’s sort of a fake way. The appearance of strong leaders who say that they’re going to … that you should blame this person or this category and I’m going to stop change, is ridiculous. I think we’re looking for people to scapegoat. I think we have not put the right policies in place to not leave people behind.

In the US we’ve lost five million manufacturing jobs, in the four swing states. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, we lost five million manufacturing jobs that we did not have a good answer to those people. 87% of those jobs were lost to technology according to the Ball State Study. We did not have an answer for retraining, other occupations, we did not have a pathway or a bridge to anything. They went from the blue collar world where they made on average like $23, $24 an hour to the service economy, which was much less stable, not unionized, where they made about $9 an hour. A lot of them fell out of the workforce, this is primarily happening to men without a college education. That gave a rise to a lot of polarization in this country regardless of what your politics are. That was not the right thing to do as a society.

I think that the wave is now coming squarely towards knowledge work and people who are doing anything in the sort of middle-skill routine world on the cognitive front, and we better have an answer. So that’s the tsunami bell I tend to ring. Do we need as many workers? I don’t know yet, but I know we’re going to need a whole lot more training, retraining, continuous learning, and we need to set that expectation from kindergarten on that you’re not done at the end of high school, and if you’re … If learning isn’t your thing in a formal setting, there are other ways to learn, there are other occupations.

We need much more people to go into vocational fields. If you’ve ever renovated a house, I just renovated my house a year ago, it’s really hard to find a good plumber or a good electrician. There’s a tremendous opportunity there, and people can do very well in that field. So we need to rebuild those pathways, we need to rebuild the apprenticeship. There’s dignity in all of this work, but we have this idea that, sort of, only going to college is what makes you valuable. I don’t think that’s true. So we need to build more pathways, we need to stop leaving people behind, and we need to have the answer when there’s technological unemployment, which is what that five million manufacturing … lost manufacturing job was.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for that.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: It’s coming so fast.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, that was great. I loved it. I’ve taken a lot of notes. That was so illuminating. So what would you leave our listeners with? I know you have these great like three part lists for us. Things to bear in mind, things to make time for, either to think about, to do, to explore, to find our purpose. I think we have to quiet our busyness of our lives to really notice … You used the example earlier of noticing your energy as it waxes and wanes, and using that as data. By the way, robots will help us do that at some point, I’m sure, right?

If we can’t read it ourselves to say like, “Hey, guess what, this is where you’re happiest, this is where you’re in a flow where time doesn’t … time sort of loses its meaning.” I mean, to me, that’s what sort of working from purpose feels like. The concrete world falls away and I miss appointments, or I’m late for things, or I just get swept up. But that can be a really good and energizing thing to kind of focus on just to how can I create more of that in my life?

Then I think as technology takes things in a way off our plates or makes them perhaps automates them, we can direct our lives more towards, I think it gives us more bandwidth perhaps to think about not the routine and the repeated tasks, but the sort of achievement of that higher level in the Maslow hierarchy. I hope that’s accessible to more people than it is right now, because it just feels like such a privilege to live the life that perhaps you and I get to live every day, and it certainly does not feel like that is shared at all across the board.

So what would you leave our listeners with to think about? I would also like to hear where would you direct them. I know you have a new book that’s going to be coming out next year, I’m really excited. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about where your writing is going to be focusing on for that, and make sure people can pre-order it ahead of … I think it’s March, right? Is it March when it’s coming out?


JENNIFER BROWN: April. Great, okay.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: So I think what we’ve got to start by sort of understanding this is taking place. We’re sort of using the mindset from the last industrial revolution and sort of lunging at singular solutions, rather than saying, “Okay, the world is changing.” The slowest rate of the change for the rest of my life is right now. Now, everybody’s got to be in the business of helping other humans adapt, and just to acknowledge the velocity of that change. If you were born during the steam engine, you had two and a half generations to absorb that change based on the velocity of change and the length of human lives. Now we’re living longer through more change cycles, so we’re going to have to go through two, three, four, or five different paradigm shifts, within a single generation. We’re not preparing people for them, we’re not talking about it enough. So have empathy for yourself, have empathy for others and acknowledge that this … adapting to this change is not easy.

I think the future work is learning and adapting and that’s … Chris Shipley is my co-author and we are writing a book now. When I get off this interview, I will be going back to editing.

JENNIFER BROWN: Have fun, I have been there.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: So the book is called The Adaptation Advantage: Let go, learn fast, to thrive in the future of work. Our theory is that we need to let go of occupational identity, let go of old ways of doing things, be comfortable with ambiguity, be comfortable with unlearning, in order to learn quickly and thrive in the future work. We’d sort of divide the book into these three parts. The first part is where we talk about the velocity of change and how you can know what’s happening, getting people to acknowledge some things around them that’s changing, the speed in which that’s happened. The second part is, what does this mean to an individual, how is identity formed and how do we have to think about instead of just acquiring skills in rapid succession. I say we have to think about it like applications on our phone. We’re going to add and delete them for the rest of our lives.

So let’s focus on building the underlying operating system that we need to add/delete those, which I think is an agile learning mindset, and a resilient, and adaptive identity. Then I think we need to develop uniquely human skills. We’ve sort of left human skills behind in lunging at technical skills, which we’ve sort of pitted ourselves to compete more against machines rather than compliment them.

I think that leadership has to focus on us, the third part of the book. Leadership has to focus on being comfortable with ambiguity, and vulnerability, and establishing trust, and building diverse teams where people ask you hard questions that check your blind spots because the research has shown that the teams that can accelerate learning the fastest, have a combination of cognitive diversity and psychological safety.

JENNIFER BROWN: I cannot wait to read that. I think my favorite part is, think of yourself as building and maintaining that operating system, and then we add, add and delete Apps as we need them like iPhones. It’s very useful actually, and this sort of ease with which we can customize those things as we need them, and not carrying too many at any given time, and just being ultimately so attuned to our environment and basically training ourselves up to respond to the changes and be comfortable with not knowing. All that stuff is great and it’s such a good tie in. I think our audience will really see a lot of diversity themes in what you’ve just said and … but I hope everybody listening will seek out your thought leadership, will watch you online because you’re a great speaker. I love your energy on stage.

You just have like an authority about it that I also really appreciate and I think we should … You know your stuff. It’s like, “Yeah, I belong here.” That’s good. A lot of our audience is working on finding their voice and really owning the space to know what you know, or to even own the space about what you don’t know. That can be just as powerful of a talk. Asking the right questions can, in a way, establish you as an expert. I’m so glad that’s changing.

Anyway, so Heather, thank you so much. Where can folks … I know they can follow you on LinkedIn. It sounds like they can jump into the many thousands and really learn a lot, not just from you but from everybody that’s weighing in, and adding their own thought leadership to the mix, but where can folks read what you’re reading?

HEATHER MCGOWAN: So, yeah. Definitely connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on LinkedIn. I post on Twitter as well @heathermcgowan. I have a website, heathermcgowan.com … www.heathermcgowan.com. I write for Forbes. So if you Google Forbes Heather McGowan, I write articles there about once a month. I’ve got a YouTube channel in there, which you can find off of the heathermcgowan.com website. Most of my talks are on heathermcgowan.com, so you could find them there as well. Then the Adaptation Advantage is listed on Amazon for pre-order now and should be out in April. I’ll be figuring out soon my book tour, and where that goes. I’m looking forward to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. Get on Heather’s mailing list, and see her in a city near you. Thank you, Heather for joining Will To Change.

HEATHER MCGOWAN: Thank you so much for having me.


Heather McGowan